In Puritan America, a married woman’s illicit affair with a minister landed her in jail. After her release, Hester Prynne was sentenced to forever wear a big red “A” on her dress. 

Nearly 375 years later, the U.S. continues to be scandalized, tantalized and perplexed by sex, especially about sex offenders. Tough on crime, we’re still struggling to learn: 

  • Why domestic violence and incest are so under-reported by victims? 
  • Why most people think every sexual offender is a serial rapist? 
  • Why, even among therapists, many continue to believe sex-offenders to be untreatable? 
  • Why supervision after offenders’ release tends to-wards punitive rather than restorative? 

It’s time to bring the subject of sex crime out of the dark ages, time to help victims shed the shame and trauma of their experience. It’s also time to allow offenders an opportunity to show they can change, make amends and start to earn back trust and acceptance from society.

Darkness Before the Light

In the past week, as daylight waned and the full moon rose, Solstice arrived in the Northern Hemisphere, a celestial time when Earth’s days are the shortest.. Symbolically, going back before time was recorded in hours, people celebrated the Solstice for two things. First, it was a time for slowing down. It was also a time to celebrate the turning again towards the light, giving homage to that which gives life.

For Christians, this time of year is also revered. Christ’s birth, like the bright star that shone in the East, symbolizes hope and forgiveness, as the Christ in each of us is realized.

In the world of psychology, much has been written about treatment using the metaphors of darkness and light. Because of our being complex organisms, humans wend their way through life fighting against darkness (both outside ourselves and inside) while invoking the light of insight, of inspiration or divine grace. Treatment, whether for substance abuse, eating disorders, depression, anxiety, sexual abuse, domestic violence, gambling, or other disorder, aims to have the one in treatment consider their darkness and strive to transform it into a behavior that is more life-affirming. Treatment is done in the context of building trust and acceptance, confidence and new adaptive skills.

Primitive cultures didn’t have prisons; they had to consider other ways to curtail behavior that would harm the clan or tribe. Seldom was murder or banishment the first option. Rather, the community found ways to help individuals remain in the group, because the alternative was swift and certain death. Those societies, when they were still nomadic, had plenty of work to keep everyone busy, engaged and productive. There may have been a hierarchy, but there were fewer divisions of rank and status. Everyone was important.

Our modern prison systems are perhaps more primitive because criminals are banished from society, isolated by gender identification, and expected to mend their ways with punishment as the stick and early parole as the carrot. There are few prisons in the US that augment punishment with opportunity to renew self esteem while learning empathy for others. Once released back into society, former felons remain outcasts (unless they happen to also be wealthy, which magically erases the mistrust and disdain).

Those who opt to transform their behavior while in prison, just like any of us who embarks on a personal development quest, must face a heart of darkness, as author Joseph Conrad details in his book of the same name. While Conrad was looking at the crimes committed in colonizing Africa in the 1800s, the metaphor extends both to society’s dark ways as well as the darkness dwelling within.

So, this time of year can also symbolize a rebirth of intention for bettering our behavior and reducing our biases or moral judgments about others, including former criminals. Many associate a New Year’s wish with this kind of new growth, and may even resort to asking for support from others.

As we each embark on our own personal growth quest, may we learn to embrace our darkness rather than attempting to control or banish it. Acknowledging that our less evolved selves live beside the parts that are kind, noble and compassionate may give us a new way to accommodate and even forgive those things we carry inside that are less noble. And in doing this, we may also come to recognize other humans likewise, each made of the same stuff as we, each trying to find their way out of darkness and into the light.

Sex Education, A Community Inquiry

Sex Education, A Community Inquiry